I have talked about Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) before here on Aviationintel, but after being asked about it in multiple interviews, readers’ emails and consulting engagements I think it is time to really explain why this technology matters and how it could change not only the way we fight battles overseas but also how we police our borders, fight crime and fires, and respond to natural disasters here at home.
Over the last half dozen years or so, the DoD has been working with industry on developing a surveillance payload for aircraft, drones, and blimps/airships, that can breakthrough the decades long “soda straw” detailed view of the battlefield from on high. Systems such as Gorgan’s Stare, ARGUS, Vigilant Stare and Constant Hawk are all developmental iterations of the Pentagon’s goal to be able to continually survey a whole village, or even a city, from a single source at one time. Although these systems have had serious developmental teething problems, which can be expected as they are attempting to do something that is totally unprecedented provide a real-time panoptic “God’s eye view” of the battlefield, generated by a single platform, that can be manipulated by a multitude of users at any given time. Operational Wide Area Airborne Surveillance systems could supply invaluable streaming video to everyone from the CIA back in Virginia, to a platoon leader deeply entrenched in the fight miles below the orbiting WAAS equipped aircraft simultaneously. The aforementioned CIA team back in the US could be watching a house for a high value target in one part of the village, while the Platoon leader uses his WAAS down-link to watch for enemy heat signatures approaching his team’s position in an entirely different part of that same village. At the same time, the lone UAV, aircraft or airship that is providing WAAS coverage over the village in question could also be supplying video to helicopter crews planning a medevac mission, bomb damage assessment intelligence teams checking to see if an air strike was successful, and a resupply crew trying to find the safest way through the village’s hostile streets. What would have taken an armada of unmanned drones and surveillance aircraft to provide can now be accomplished by a single WAAS sensor platform. Simply put, the term revolutionary is an understated when it comes to the WAAS concept.
In the not so distant future WAAS systems will become an operational reality for the US military and will provide ever-increasing image fidelity and coverage area as the technology matures. In many ways, when it comes to surveillance, WAAS is metaphorically similar to how digital MP3 players and online music stores killed the “main-street” retail music business. Before the digital music age, a customer had to figure out what they wanted to buy then take time to go to the record store to get it and still they would only be able to enjoy that music when they had a CD, tape or record player nearby (depending what format the media was purchased on at the store). If they did not know exactly what they wanted before going to the record store they would have to browse around the store’s physically massive, yet still limited library a single album at a time. Buying our music from retail locations was an inflexible and comparatively inefficient system compared to what we have today in the age of I-tunes and the I-pod. Now all our music can be bought at a moments notice, no need to travel to a store to see if exactly what we want is available, or waiting for it to be physically ordered and shipped in if it is not. As long as the online music store’s servers are running we have full access to a catalog of music that would make even the world’s largest Tower Records blush. We can even listen to selections as we browse to see if it is something that we are indeed interested in. Additionally, in the digital music age we are not burdened with inefficient storage mediums like CDs or tapes, nor are we dependent on bulky playback hardware specifically tailored to the storage medium on hand. Today our music can be heard whenever we want it and it can be stored on “cloud” servers so that it can be accessed from anywhere in the world with a wireless connection. We can now buy any song we want, or play any song we own at a moments notice, just buy accessing our account via our handheld devices or desktop computers. The digital music store never runs out of inventory and its ability to quickly service customers is only limited by bandwidth, not square footage, a physical logistics train, or manpower. With streaming music like Pandora, and cloud storage, there is really no reason to store your music at all, just stream it and let the cloud bare the file storage and transferring burden. In the digital age music is on demand, what we want, when we want it, and the infrastructure surrounding the industry is built to serve as many customers as intuitively as possible. The listener finally has full control via a diffused storefront featuring ease of accessibility and enhanced product usability.
The modern era of digital music is roughly analogous to what WAAS will do to the persistent surveillance concept as we know it today. No longer will multiple UAVs have to be launched to support many different missions in the same geographical area, a task that takes detailed scheduling, immense manpower, and large sums of money. Furthermore, there are never enough individual drones to go around, and for those missions that do receive drone support, current drones’ effectiveness is limited by the narrow field of view of their sensors and lackluster overall situational awareness. With a single WAAS equipped drone a whole town can be continuously surveyed and virtually anyone who requests its support can have it just by establishing the proper link and telling it where they would like to look within the WAAS coverage area. No longer is surveillance “accessibility” limited by the physical platforms available, with WAAS it will only be limited by the system’s ability to supply transmission bandwidth to its customers.
Eventually the WAAS interface will work similar to Google Earth, where the user can see a low resolution image of the entire coverage area, and then order WAAS’s servers to “magnify” the user’s area of interest. Acting almost as a “cloud” server, WAAS sees all (just like cloud data storage contains your whole music library) but will only transmit (or stream) in high fidelity the areas requested of it to conserve bandwidth. Also, because such a system’s imagery can be used for so many things by so many people, WAAS will make current ROVER terminals, once mainly the tools of forward air controllers, a common piece of kit from the platoon level on up, and eventually even each individual soldier may have the ability to view WAAS feeds. Having WAAS’s real time situational awareness and dynamic mapping available at the soldier level may be made possible through miniaturization of ROVER type terminals via “app” software installed on multi-use computer tablets. Not every soldier would need to be outfitted with the equipment required to receive a high-speed WAAS down-link. By creating a single Wi-Fi “hot spot” from the team’s ROVER terminal and micro-server, the whole unit could take advantage of a streaming WAAS feed over a finite area selected by the soldier controlling the main ROVER like terminal. This way WAAS’s would only have to create a single feed covering a limited geographical area, but that single feed could be used by anyone logged onto the team’s mobile wireless server. This means a JTAC could use WAAS to develop coordinates for a GPS guided bomb, while another member of the team monitors their surroundings for enemy patrols, while another member of the same team attempts to find their sister platoon operating close by. In other words, not only could a single WAAS platform be used by many different users working on many different mission, but a single WAAS feed could be used by many different individuals all working towards the same objective, but for entirely different purposes.
WAAS feeds will also be migrated to the desktop environment for widespread exploitation by those not directly in or around the immediate surveillance area. Just like how your music can be stored on the cloud, operators, commanders, soldiers, intelligence officers, mission planners and others will be able to view WAAS’s output on demand, all without having to coordinate a proprietary mission and data-link connection specific to that mission. Eventually WAAS equipped flying machines will even be able to store much of what they survey on-board for later dissemination, all in an entirely passive nature. In other words, you won’t have to know what exactly you are looking for, or even precisely where you need to search for it, before you go looking because WAAS’s “total picture” will eventually be recorded in full to be used for after the fact for exploitation. This is precisely where the WAAS concept turns from cutting edge to borderline science fiction in nature…
With all this in mind, you can see how WAAS systems could be invaluable to all levels of the military during a time of conflict or by America’s intelligence agencies trying to connect the dots between small tidbits of intelligence overseas. A single WAAS system over a village could provide persistent over-watch of an offensive being executed below. WAAS interpretation officers could literally call out the bad guys to units on the ground, and direct them towards cover as needed. Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs) could down-link a portion of the WAAS picture to generate targeting coordinates and evaluate the enemy’s location in real time. Furthermore, commanders in the field could use WAAS to watch an entire offensive, pulling up relevant troop locations as they come under fire. In other words, the idea is that WAAS will provide a God-like view of the battlefield that can be exploited by the top echelons of command and all the way down to the shooter’s level as they fight their way towards their objective.
When it comes to intelligence, WAAS can do the majority of the Predator’s or Reaper’s task but in a much cheaper, persistent, and user friendly way. For activities like following vehicles, watching for suspicious patterns of life, or looking out for particular events and gatherings within a population center, the Predator’s soda-straw view of the world, or a satellites ability to only capture a moment in time, are no match for WAAS. With WAAS you can survey a compound in one part of the city while you follow a car in another, watch a CIA safe-house in even another, and provide over-watch for a special operations team in yet another area. Just pick your area of the map to survey and digitally zoom in and out as is needed to accomplish your surveillance task. With WAAS, not only can our intelligence officers follow a suspected terrorist courier to a delivery, they can continue to follow that courier, and the person that he delivered the package to, as well as that man’s roommate, and so on, via a single asset high overhead. Such a capability will dramatically reduce risks to personnel that would be needed on the ground to accomplish some of these tasks while also saving massive sums of money on procuring and operating multiple “traditional” airborne surveillance platforms, all the while providing continuous real-time and archival streaming-video intelligence over an unprecedented area.
As these systems develop they will be injected with greater and greater artificial intelligence capabilities and enhanced user interfaces. Setting up advanced triggers for the system to look for, such as large gatherings of people around certain areas or structures, or looking for infra-red spikes that could be a suicide bombing in progress. Additionally, certain vehicles or locations could be “tagged” for surveillance. For instance, an operator could program the system to follow any vehicle that comes and goes from a location of interest, or to follow a particular vehicle indefinitely. Then programming can be put in place that would alert the operator when a certain amount of “tagged” vehicles are nearing the same location (say for a suspected terrorist meeting or arms smuggling deal). Such intelligence could be used to rapidly fix and destroy high value targets in an incredibly rapid manner.
This all sounds like a mesmerizing new capability for military right? Surely, but when you really go into the nuts and bolts of what this system could end up providing, not just for the military but also for civilian agencies, a larger picture that is truly revolutionary, bordering on mind-blowing really, begins to emerge…
Currently, in larger US cities, police rely on helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to provide overhead surveillance for emergency response and other situations such as hunting for suspects on the run or responding to large building fires. During times of disaster, these same aircraft are usually pushed into the role of damage assessment platforms used by government officials to get a general picture of how the event has effected a population center overall. Aviation assets such as these are expensive to operate and can only be tasked to one single mission or event at any given time. For large cities, there may be a need for maintaining more than one aircraft in the air during “peak” times due to the sheer volume of air support requests law enforcement groups in these metropolises make. Needless to say, such operations can get very expensive. Furthermore, these aircraft need to be constantly refueled and their air crews kept fresh. Additionally, like current drones and military surveillance aircraft, these civilian law enforcement aircraft can only really see, or transmit for that matter (if they possess this capability at all), images from their FLIR turrets, which like their military cousins, have a very narrow field of view. Finally, since these airborne surveillance assets are usually “on call,” like the vast majority of police capabilities, they can only survey a crime scene after the crime or illegal event has taken place, or at best as it is in progress. So up until now, law enforcement and federal agency aircraft have not really been known for stopping crime but for decisively supporting the response to a crime, or a disaster, that has already taken place. In so many ways civil government and law enforcement’s historical use of aerial surveillance platforms is inefficient, hugely expensive, and lacking in capacity to serve multiple “customers” at a single time, very much like the military’s use of similar assets, but this may be about to change in a major way.
So what could Wide Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS) mean for civilians, first responders and law enforcement domestically in the not so distant future? Well let’s take a speculative look into the future in an attempt to fully comprehend where this technology is leading us:
Let’s just say a WAAS system was deployed aboard a stationary blimp holding it position some 15,000 feet above the exact center of a medium-sized city in the US. Once again, this blimp carries a WAAS system, having dozens, or even hundreds, of fixed cameras that stare in every downward direction, each surveying a portion of the city. The WAAS system feeds each camera’s video picture to an on-board central computer that uses software to seamlessly “stitch” each camera’s video feed together into a continuous quilt like mosaic that covers the entire city as a whole. Attached to this computer system is a state of the art high-speed line of sight data-link communications system that can send processed WAAS feeds to multiple end users on the ground below. Fire, police, city hall, FBI, FEMA, Coast Guard (if applicable), ICE and other folks with a specified need to have access to the WAAS system have secure connections over the internet to access WAAS video. In larger operations centers, like at police or fire headquarters, the WAAS feed can be viewed and manipulated using powerful exploitation centers, with large projection screens as well as individual touch screen interface terminals. For those with less of a dynamic and more limited requirement for WAAS data, such as a group conducting a street traffic monitoring survey, the WAAS feed can be brought up on a desktop computer and its features can be limited or locked out depending on the user’s requirements. In other words, who gets what data and at what volume, as well as how each customer is able to interact with WAAS, will be totally scalable. So will the system’s available bandwidth, with first responders at the top of the priority list, and non-essential entities at the bottom. This way during a time of crises, police and fire personnel will be able to access the system’s full transmitting potential, while less critical users will be temporarily “dropped” until free bandwidth becomes available.
With all this in mind, let’s say a fire breaks out in the north-east industrial district of the aforementioned hypothetical city, and at the same time a bank robbery takes place four miles away in the south-west business district of that same city. Once the 911 call is received and the alarm goes off at the fire station, the commander can immediately go to his WAAS terminal, or even his computer tablet while on the go, and pull up the exact location where the fire is supposed to be and view how extensive the blaze is, what hazardous or endangered structures are nearby, and what assets are already on scene. This real-time streaming video allows him to immediately tailor his response to the real-time visual information he has at hand, sending more assets if the fire appears to be of great danger to the population and infrastructure around it, or holding back assets in reserve if it appears to be less catastrophic in nature.
Meanwhile, a 911 call comes in from the aforementioned bank, located on the opposite side of town from the fire, that has just been robbed by a group of masked men who have fled the scene in an unknown vehicle. Immediately the police can access the WAAS feed of the bank to see if there is a firefight outside or if other dangers exist. They can instantly relay this information to the police units that are inbound via radio calls or even by “exporting” the WAAS feed directly to their police cruisers. In other words, real-time precise information of a crime scene environment can be conveyed to those moving into harms way without relying on a vague witness information, if even that is available at the time. Additionally, with WAAS there is no waiting for a helicopter to arrive on scene to begin relaying an overhead situational picture via radio or data-link, WAAS imagery is conveyed in real-time and is instantly available for exploitation and distribution.
Once commanders back at police headquarters have a good idea that their officers will not be in direct danger when they pull up to the scene of the crime, they can immediately send a request to the WAAS airship to “rewind” the imagery of the area around the bank from before the crime took place. By viewing this “past-tense” WAAS footage, archived on-board the airship platform in extensive data-storage server for just such an occasion, police commanders can almost immediately see the suspects arrive at the scene, even though there was no dedicated surveillance aircraft overhead. In doing so, the police have gone from not even having a description of the getaway car or even an exact number on how many perpetrators were involved in the robbery, to knowing exactly how many suspects were involved and exactly what color, make and model of car their getaway vehicle is. Immediately after watching this archival WAAS video, headquarters sends out a screen capture of the vehicle involved in the crime to officers’ cruisers and smart phones, as well as details including how many suspects should be in the vehicle. Without WAAS this time sensitive critical information could have taken hours to obtain through the arduous process of interviewing those on the scene and collecting surveillance video tapes from on site and nearby cameras, if such footage is even available at all. By using WAAS it only took a matter of moments to not only obtain this information, but to act on it as well.
Now that the police know the car involved in the crime, they can tell WAAS’s on-board computers to “tag” that vehicle and follow it as it left the scene retroactively, once again using archived data, all the way up to where it is at in the present. Once requested, this information is then compiled on-board the WAAS toting blimp and then downloaded to the command center, with the real-time location of the vehicle brought up on the main screen. If WAAS was able to “track” the tagged vehicle accurately, it would allow police to apprehend the suspects via relaying the car’s exact coordinates in real-time as it continues to track it into the present. Even if the car has driven outside WAAS coverage by this time, the system can still help solve the crime in a fraction of the time once needed, by looking farther back in its all all-seeing memory banks…
The WAAS concept is not only an incredibly powerful tool for efficiently increasing situational awareness and real-time surveillance capabilities, but it is also an omnipotent evidence collector, providing an indisputable historical record of what took place anywhere outdoors at any given time in a city under its unblinking stare. Back to our hypothetical scenario, once all the aforementioned critical tasks have been performed by police in an attempt to locate the suspects at large, the police commander can then turn over the WAAS terminal to the department’s detectives who can use WAAS to backtrack the exact path the car took from its place of origin before the robbery took place, or even much farther back in time, to find out exactly where the car “lives” and where it goes on a day-to-day basis. Within hours this information would be used to positively identify the suspects involved in the crime while also identifying who they are regularly in physical contact with, all without even having to inspect the crime scene, interview witnesses, or ask the public for tips. In other words, eventually WAAS will not only allow users to see what is happening in real-time, or in the very recent past, but it will also be able to see what was happening hours, days, or even weeks before the event in question ever took place, thus making solving crimes and verifying alibis incredibly easier, and wildly less expensive than ever before. In effect, every crime scene will be under surveillance before a crime is even committed, and every suspect can be tracked before they are even suspects by exploiting Wide Area Airborne Surveillance’s all-seeing capability in a regressive manner.
Although WAAS’s potential crime fighting capabilities are Orwellian in nature, the same technology could be used to a great degree during disasters. FEMA could launch a WAAS equipped airship or drone within hours of a catastrophe occurring and use this data to take in the general destructive nature of the event as a whole and then begin to go neighborhood by neighborhood assessing the damage and looking for those in need of rescue. A WAAS system equipped with a sensitive infra-red camera array could also be used to locate fires after an earthquake, or even to help firefighters contain and extinguish forest fires burning over large areas. Similarly the Coast Guard could use a WAAS like system to look for survivors at sea, allowing the system’s artificial intelligence to “flag” objects that could be of interest for operators to review, then “tagging” them for tracking if the contact needs to be investigated further by a helicopter, ship, or more traditional UAV. The ability to search over a much larger area via WAAS would allow for less aircraft to conduct search and rescue operations while at the same time executing a search much faster. Grid pattern searches of a couple of miles wide could now be increased to tens of miles wide, allowing WAAS to do the wide area searching, while more tactical assets can be tasked with investigating anything interesting that the system detects. Ideally, a MQ-9 Reaper could actually prosecute both tasks at a single time, using WAAS to look at the big picture while relying on the drone’s more traditional telescope like electro-optical turret to investigate anything WAAS’s computer software “flags” for further examination.
Similarly, the US border is an area where WAAS could be of great value as it could offer a level situational awareness over large swathes of the border on an unprecedented level. Instead of using helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and drones to look for a proverbial needle in a a tiny portion of the haystack, border agents can now look a the whole haystack and allow software to look for the needles with incredible efficiency. Then, once a contact of interest is discovered, high-demand border patrol manpower and aviation assets can swoop in to investigation. In other words, WAAS may be able to do much of the “patrolling” on its own, with the direct action and on-site investigations handled by those who were once burdened with the often fruitless and inefficient patrolling themselves.
Wide Area Aerial Surveillance is truly the irresistible red apple hanging in the modern garden of surveillance technology Eden. What we are talking about here is persistent faux-satellite real-time video, the holy grail of overhead surveillance. No matter how much time, effort and money it takes, and no matter the legal or moral hurdles, I believe that WAAS will become a widespread operational fixture not only over the battlefields of tomorrow, but also over a city near you sooner as opposed to later. In fact domestic WAAS systems could largely eliminate the whole “GPS tracker on cars” legal battles of recent memory, as there would be almost no need for invasive modifications to a citizen’s vehicle in order to keep tabs on it if there is a persistent WAAS presence overhead. The same can be said about law enforcement tailing a person of interest, why use manpower intensive and fallible human surveillance when you could simply tag the car in the WAAS interface and watch the results at your leisure? Simply put, WAAS gives so much intelligence, so cheaply, and to so many people, both in a real-time and eventually in an archival manner, that this technology will change the way our first responders, police, federal law enforcement and many other domestic agencies work forever.
There can be no doubt that WAAS technology will save many American lives here at home and will greatly assist in taking many of our enemies’ lives overseas in the wars of tomorrow. Additionally, as a tool of justice, this technology can make solving complex crimes incredibly easier and even comparatively cost efficient when contrasted with our current methods of criminal science in use today. The reality is that a God’s eve view of entire cities is just on the horizon, as well as the ability to rewind on demand everything that this panoptic eye sees. Although this technology has a game changing potential if it is applied in just where appropriate, some would argue that it has an even greater potential for abuse and will only further our evolution towards an unconstitutional police state. Regardless of your view on the matter, WAAS is coming and it is going to see literally everything. Maybe the old American moniker “you will have nowhere left to hide” will finally become more than just a threat, courtesy of WAAS it very well may become a very real albeit controversial reality…